Swingin’ for the Fences, It’s the End of an Era

As several Anteater baseball players sharpen their skills in their respective summer baseball leagues, they do so with hopes of impressing coaches, solidifying spots on UCI’s roster in the upcoming season and yearning for a chance at a 2011 College World Series berth. However, for UCI players, playing summer exhibitions likely doesn’t get their blood pumping as much as last month’s NCAA Regionals did.

On June 6, after upsetting the defending national champions (Louisiana State University) 4-3 in the Los Angeles Regional, the Anteaters’ season ended in the second game of a doubleheader with a 6-2 loss to the UCLA Bruins.  Equipped with a mix of experienced veterans and talented, yet untested freshmen, the Anteaters looked polished against LSU. However, a College World Series appearance was not meant to be. Irvine finished the 2010 season at 39-21.

The team fell victim to an unlucky regional grouping.  With a taxed pitching staff that was forced to attempt to overcome the defending national champions and the eventual 2010 runner-up (UCLA), the odds were simply not in the ’Eaters’ favor.  The Bruins moved on to Omaha as Irvine was once again on the outside looking in.

On June 29, the UCLA Bruins distraughtly departed the diamond at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska as the University of South Carolina celebrated their first baseball national championship in school history.  For some Bruins, it would be their last contest in collegiate athletics. Dreams were made for one team and crushed for another. Eight teams entered the College Baseball World Series that began on June 19, seven left empty-handed. Thus, the Bruins are not alone in their close-but-no-cigar scenario.  In fact, the shoe was on the other foot just a couple weeks prior when the Bruins defeated UCI at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles. For UCI, UCLA, LSU and dozens of teams who annually have the talent necessary to push for a national title run … there’s always next year.

For many Irvine fans, this dream of doing damage in the College World Series seems to be merely a mirage.  The past few years have been “This could be the year” years with a Hall of Fame manager at the helm and an ample supply of athletes who could someday be gracing major league diamonds. Although it took an eleventh inning heartbreaker to deliver the final dagger to the Bruins’ season, it still hurts to think, “That could’ve been us.” The Anteaters would have likely been more satisfied with a bitter taste in their mouths in Omaha at the College World Series, rather than being heaved from contention in the Regionals.

The loss to the Bruins brought an end to an era in UCI baseball history.  It meant the departures of one of, if not the most decorated senior classes in school history.  Gone are pitchers Daniel Bibona, Eric Pettis, Kyle Necke and Christian Bergman; first baseman Jeff Cusick; second baseman Casey Stevenson; catcher Francis Larson; and outfielders Cory Olson, Ryan Fisher and Dillon Bell.

Although the eligibility ran out for the departing seniors’ college careers, their possibilities are endless in professional baseball.  Eight ’Eaters were selected by Major League Baseball teams in the annual first-year player draft in early June.
The Anteaters have lost the ace of their staff in Bibona.  Selected in the eighth round by the St. Louis Cardinals, Bibona who Head Coach Mike Gillespie has often compared to Colorado Rockies reliever Randy Flores, has a bright future ahead of him. As a second team All-American and two-time Big West Pitcher of the Year, Bibona has received more awards in the past few years than “Octomom” has delivered kids … and that’s saying something.

Junior Ryan Fisher was taken in the 15th round by the Florida Marlins after hitting .308 with four home runs this season. Fisher decided to forego his senior season by signing with Florida.  He has been playing third base, while hitting .264 with two home runs, five doubles and three triples in his first 18 games of minor league action.

Philadelphia took Cusick in the 18th round. With an impressive showing in the minor leagues and some luck, Cusick could someday play first base for the Phillies.

The Angels of Anaheim drafted Larson in the 20th round.  Larson’s departure means the loss of Irvine’s all-time home run king.  He led in the clubhouse and was a brilliant signal caller.

Not only is the southpaw gone, but Bergman, who filled in for Bibona brilliantly when the ace was injured, has graduated as well. The Robin to Bibona’s Batman over the past few years, Bergman has often been overshadowed; however, the right-handed hurler posted a phenomenal 9-3 record in his senior season with a 3.72 ERA. Bergman was selected in the 24th round by the Colorado Rockies.

The New York Yankees, who currently feature Robinson Cano as their major league club’s starting second baseman, took Irvine’s own Casey Stevenson in the 25th round.

Necke was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 34th round.  In his minor league debut on June 26, Necke struggled, relinquishing two earned runs in one inning of work.

The Philadelphia Phillies drafted Pettis in the 35th round to join Cusick in the minor leagues on the Williamsport Crosscutters.  Despite being the final ’Eater selected in the draft, Pettis has seen the most success in his early professional career.  He has a 1.57 ERA in 23 innings, en route to a 3-0 record.

No longer will Cusick strut to the plate in navy blue pinstripes, will Stevenson turn double-plays, or will Pettis close games at Cicerone Field. Losing the last remnants of Irvine’s 2007 squad which participated in the school’s first ever College World Series is adversity that UCI will have to overcome.

However, the baseball program’s future is in good hands.  Although Gillespie would likely frown upon crowning starters for the 2011 season in the summer of 2010, it is safe to say that his recruiting classes over the last few years have been outstanding. The doubles machine, Brian Hernandez, will likely return to the heart of the lineup. Catcher Ronnie Schaeffer will likely take the reins behind the plate after being Larson’s protégé this past season. Two players to watch, Drew Hillman and Evan Brock, stepped up immensely in the NCAA Regionals and will look to continue to improve. Hillman hit .533 with two homers in the post-season and Brock’s pitching played a key role throwing 8.1 innings and striking out nine in his freshman regional experience.

With a fresh recruiting class on its way and veteran starters continuing to progress, do not sell short on the Anteaters.  Although many of the team’s stars of the recent past are gone, there’s a talented crop of young players being raised for success under a coaching staff that knows what it’s doing. This baseball program is a dynasty.  Who knows? Maybe next year those young men in navy blue pinstripes will appear in the College World Series.